The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1981

God, I hate 1981. This year ends — actually, it doesn’t — it sits in the middle of a really terrible, five year stretch of Best Picture winners. Worst five-year plan this side of the Pacific. 1979 is Kramer vs. Kramer, a good film but not a Best Picture winner. 1980 is Ordinary People, one of the worst decisions of all time. 1981 is Chariots of Fire, perhaps the worst decision of all time. (When I get to it, though, in context it will make more sense than some of the other decisions. As a choice though, it’s the opposite of Sam Adams.) 1982 was Gandhi, a boring choice. 1983 was Terms of Endearment, a good film, but a weak choice in a weak year for nominees. Then, we got Amadeus, which broke the streak.But then the rest of the 80s were also a disaster (’85, ’87 and ’89 sucked, while ’86 and ’88 are up for discussion when the time comes), so, really, we had a really big cold streak after this too. This is just our lowest point.

I won’t even hide the fact that I hate this decision. Most times I’ll try to keep my opinions concealed enough so that when I get to Best Picture for this year there’s some sort of intrigue. Not here. This is universally proclaimed one of the top five, perhaps top three, worst Best Picture winners of all time. It’s that bad. We’re talking straight film. Nothing else. It really was bad. The rest of 1981 wasn’t so hot either. Sort of.

Best Actor went to Henry Fonda for On Golden Pond. It was the only choice, really, since they only nominated him once before — for The Grapes of Wrath — and he lost because of a blatant makeup Oscar for Jimmy Stewart. So there was no way he wasn’t winning here, and that’s that. Best Actress was Kate Hepburn, which was really insult to injury, since this was her fourth Oscar, and third in the span of 14 years. Right? ’67-’81? That span. She won three in that time. She also won for On Golden Pond. Best Supporting Actor was John Gielgud for Arthur, a decision I’m over the moon about. I love that movie so much. And Best Supporting Actress was Maureen Stapleton for Reds, which, to me, always felt like a career achievement Oscar mixed with a, “Hey, we know we don’t want to vote for you to win Best Picture, but we actually did like you more than we liked that other thing we voted for, so here’s another consolation prize.” The acting awards I guess weren’t so bad. I’ll need to look specifically to make my final decisions. But, overall, 1981 is a decent year marred by a horrible Best Picture choice.


And the nominees were…

Warren Beatty, Reds

Hugh Hudson, Chariots of Fire

Louis Malle, Atlantic City

Mark Rydell, On Golden Pond

Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark

Beatty — Warren Beatty is a dude I spoke about a few days ago. He’s a dude I always admired. Not because he fucked like 2,000 women and boasts one of the most impressive track records (I feel, beating even WIlt Chamberlain and Mick Jagger, since his actually includes a shitload of very famous actresses) for anyone, bar none, in history. Not because he’s made a bunch of really good movies. Well, mostly that. The dude has made a lot of really good movies. The only downside I felt was that he was allowed to be his own dictator. That is to say, he always tried too hard to be a perfectionist, to the point where, you can see it. In his films, especially the ones he directed himself in, you can see where he tried way too hard to make the film better, which, in turn, made it kinda worse. It’s like his desire to make himself look better hurt the overall product. Or something. I haven’t quite sat down to put into words what it is, but, it’s something. It’s like his way must be the only way. Which is what it has to be, because he’s turned down a fuck load of really big roles (most recently, Bill in Kill Bill), which makes me think it’s because he wants creative control.

Anyway, my point here is that — this film is his biggest production. I know they all had huge budgets and are all, in different ways, kind of unwieldy — Town and Country was a $100 million romantic comedy (a feat not really repeated until How Do You Know, with similar results), Bugsy was a great movie, but kind of overdone, Bulworth was really only saved by his gameness but on the whole was kind of overbearing, Dick Tracy mostly worked but also was overdone — Beatty’s films just have this thing to them where, if someone made him pull in the reins just a bit earlier, the entire products would have been tighter, and they would have been better films than they were. Which isn’t to say that they’re bad films, they’re just, too much. Sometimes limitations breed better films. Which is something Steven Spielberg learned on 1941, which I mention because not only did it pay immediate dividends, it relates directly to this list.

Reds, in case you didn’t know, which I feel a lot of people might not — this is a film that people know about more than they know. It’s like, “Yeah, I know this won this award and is this big film, but I don’t really know anything about it.” The films is basically like a communist love letter. Kinda. It’s about a very radical journalist during the Russian Revolution who, along with Diane Keaton (whoever she played), just kinda, go through the revolution. Fuck, I gotta be honest with you, I’m totally blanking on what happened in this film. I know that Keaton is a society girl, and she meets Beatty, who is at a communist meeting and she starts fucking him, and then she converts too. And then Maureen Stapleton is the radical leader. Then they meet Jack Nicholson who plays Eugene O’Neill, then Diane Keaton tries to put on a play for like, 45 minutes, and that’s a disaster, then they go to Russia, and the whole thing is told documentary style — like, Band of Brothers style, with people telling the stories and then us seeing them. And also, I just read it’s about the dude who wrote “Ten Days that Shook the World.” So it’s about that. And it’s about them being in an on-again/off-again relationship throughout. So it’s kind of a romance set against this backdrop. The film is good. I did like it. But I also recognized that it was way overdone. Surprise, coming from Warren Beatty.

This is a film that I liked, but, unless I had no better option — which, I kind of don’t, but also do. It’s a catch-22 in this year — I wouldn’t vote for. I’m not a huge fan of them just voting for actors who direct their own films (says the guy who would have voted for Clooney in ’05). This is back-to-back years actors won Oscars for directing. Big actors, too. But, that’s all by the wayside. If the film is worth it, I’ll vote for it. I just felt this film way to overdone to the point where, unless there were no better options, or the man was woefully overdue (kind of like with Gangs of New York), which, Warren Beatty was not overdue (at least for directing), I’m not voting for it.

Hudson — Hey, yeah, it’s that shitty film that won Best Picture. That’s what this film is known as. And that’s a shame, because, without that tag of Best Picture, this would probably be a halfway decent movie for most people. I watched it with an open mind and still didn’t like it. I knew going in it shouldn’t have won, so I was watching it like, “Okay, is it at least defendable as a nominee or as a film?” And my answer was no.

I just didn’t like this movie. It was like Rocky for Jewish runners. They didn’t even tell the story correctly. They deliberately fudged facts to make it more underdog-gy. But still — the movie is about a dude who has trained all his life to run in the Olympics. And I think there’s the subtext of, he’s gonna be a Jew running in the Olympics in Germany while Hitler is there. Am I right or am I making that up? I feel like that’s probably what helped them win. Academy members like that shit. But, I remember, he’s running, and Ian Holm plays an ethnic (I forget which one, but he had an accent. Probably Italian. I remember him being stubborn. And I know he wasn’t playing a dude from Spain. This is Bilbo Baggins we’re talking about) coach who trains him, and then there’s a big deal because he won’t race on the Sabbath — which is total bullshit. Seriously, dude? You’re running! Then he like, trips or something, then wins the final race. I really just didn’t like this movie. I wasn’t even impressed with the Vangelis music. It’s just, they run on the beach to “Chariots of Fire.” Okay. The year after this Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers run across the beach to “Gonna Fly Now.” I much prefer that scene.

I really didn’t like this movie. I’m so glad it didn’t win Best Director too. It would then really be like The King’s Speech. Which, is a movie I can rationalize it winning Best Picture, but is one I cannot rationalize also winning Best Director. Not at all. No vote, at all. In fact, #5.

Malle — Louis Malle. Surprised the man got nominated. And he got the movie nominated for Best Picture too. That’s a feat. the film is about an aging gangster (Burt Lancaster too. Motherfuckin’ Burt Lancaster) in — guess where — who is basically running small-time numbers, just kind of doing his thing. He spends his time taking care of a higher-ranking mobster’s widow. Or wife. Something like that. She sits in bed all day and complains, and he just kind of goes up there and gets her shit. And then he meets Susan Sarandon, and he sees her as this woman that can redeem him. And then there’s a coke deal, with Sarandon’s asshole husband, who magically shows up out of nowhere. And the whole thing goes sour, and then real mobsters are after them, then Lancaster has to go real gangster to get him and Sarandon out of it. And it’s pretty entertaining. It’s one of those movies, though, that I’d be like, “Yeah, good job nominated, but, I’m not voting for you. I have better choices.” It’s one of those. Nice though to see Lancaster in the 80s. Just can’t vote for it, though.

Rydell — I love this movie. I go for shit like this real easy. A film can be a film, but, if it has older stars in the roles, the poignancy meter just hits the fucking roof. Henry Fonda as an aging professor and Kate Hepburn as his wife. “Norman, Norman the loons, the loons are calling. They’re saying goodbye.” And they go to their summer cabin — guess where — and the movie is just about getting old. It’s funny and tragic at the same time, which makes it awesome. Plus Henry Fonda is grumpy as fuck, and it’s hysterical. The movie is also about Jane Fonda, as their daughter (subtext!), who brings a new husband and his son to the cabin. And they leave the son there and he bonds with the couple, while the other two go off on a honeymoon. And it’s about some other stuff, but mostly it’s enjoyable to just see Fonda and Hepburn act together. It’s awesome. I love this movie so much. Only problem is, it’s a small movie, and would never win Best Director. It’s just not a movie that wins Oscars (aside from acting ones and screenplay). Which is a shame, yet, understandable. This is a great movie that I can’t vote for in this category, but wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Unless you have a heart of steel and hate old people. But, if you hate Henry Fonda, we might have some words. So, great movie, no vote. Sadly.

Spielberg — Can we just all agree up front that this should have won? Yes?

It’s fucking Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is blockbuster filmmaking before there was blockbuster filmmaking. The reason this movie works so well is because, after Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg was like, “I can do no wrong.” So he just went all out on 1941, which, didn’t turn out as he’d expected it. It was like today, when they spend $200 million, when $120 million will do. Just, too much. So he said, “Fuck that, I’m gonna challenge myself. Next movie is gonna be stripped down, only the essentials.” Then we got this.

This is one of the greatest action and adventure movies of all time. I think everyone knows what it’s about — and if you don’t, don’t admit it, you’ll be a leper to the world — so I won’t go over it. I think we can all agree, the direction on this movie is amazing, and it gets my vote. Now, there’s a caveat there that I’ll explain — right now.

My Thoughts: I think we can all agree that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great, great movie. And that it was the best directed film on this list. However, knowing the Academy’s distaste for straight genre pictures (Note: Despite its tagline, The French Connection was not an “out-and-out thriller.” It was, in fact, a police drama that just happened to have two thrilling chases in it. This, however, is an out-and-out action movie.), this was never going to win. You could tell they weren’t going to vote for it because Spielberg wasn’t nominated for Jaws and because Star Wars didn’t win. So, in that case, while I’m still voting for Spielberg, because you can’t argue with the best, I’m still doing this full well knowing that Beatty was really the one to vote for here. I say this because — no one wants Chariots of Fire winning. It’s a cop out vote. Them doing it for Picture is status quo. They did shit like this all the time. But when it wins both Picture and Director, that’s when they tell you they really liked it (or flat out refused to vote for the alternative — looking at you, 1980). So, since they refused to vote Spielberg, I will, and know that Beatty should have won too.

My Vote: Spielberg

Should Have Won: Spielberg. And, I guess, maybe Beatty. If we have to.

Is the result acceptable?: Long run? Absolutely. Warren Beatty has at least one Oscar to his name, and we know the Spielberg eventually wins two, for incredibly directed films. So it’s not all that terrible that he doesn’t win this. Short term? I feel he absolutely was the best director in this category. Though, if it meant Chariots of Fire not sweeping both Picture and Director — I’ll take Warren Beatty any day.

Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you may be dead to the world. Really, it’s kind of a cornerstone film. Kind of like Star Wars of the action-blockbuster genre. If you haven’t seen it, there might be something wrong with you. You might want to get that checked out. I also highly suggest you check out On Golden Pond. It’s a great film in and of itself. It just has the added benefit of having Henry Fonda and Kate Hepburn bickering with one another. And the whole Henry/Jane Fonda angle going for it. I don’t think anyone could really watch this movie and hate it. At worst you’re like, “That was pleasant enough.” Plus, knowing this was Henry Fonda’s last (feature) film before his death, it makes it all the more poignant. Also, Reds is a very good film. But you really need to be a trooper to get through it. Boy, is it long. But, history buffs will really like it. I like it for many reasons, many of which I’ve stated up there. So I will recommend it. But be warned. You need to want to watch it to enjoy it. Also, for Burt Lancaster fans, Atlantic City is worth the watch. You see the spark of youth in the old dog once again. It’s nice to see. And you get to see what Susan Sarandon looked like thirty years ago. (Note: Exactly the same, just younger. Same tits.)


5) Hudson

4) Malle

3) Rydell

2) Beatty

1) Spielberg

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